Robert Kates: Making the Transition

Moving toward sustainable development.

by / November 20, 2003
Robert Kates trained as a geographer and taught geography for many years at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. He also participated in interdisciplinary programs addressing both environment and development at the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania; Clark University; and the World Hunger Program at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Kates now serves as a visiting research scholar at Harvard and co-convener with Akin Mabogunje of the Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability. In conjunction with the Association of American Geographers, he completed research on the Global Change in Local Places project, and is continuing research on major trends and transitions affecting sustainability and participating in the Great Transition Initiative. Kates served as chair of the Coordinating Committee on a transition toward sustainability to advise presidents of the U.S. National Academies on their role in advancing recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences report, Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability.

Q: You were co-chair of a study sponsored by the National Research Council that resulted in the well received report, Our Common Journey. This helped better define sustainable development in concrete terms for Americans, something that still is widely interpreted to mean different things.

A: Defining sustainable development in some ways has been difficult and challenging. If you go back to where the concept of sustainable development originally comes from, it arises out of science. It was first used by conservationists -- early environmentalists who realized they couldn't simply try to save the world's biodiversity without being concerned for poor people who lived in and around the many environmental sites of concern. They began to think about how environment and development should interact. That laid the basis for the 1972 Stockholm Conference that started the whole work in earnest. The early concerns came from a group of scientists and biological scientists. But it then followed the typical pattern.

In my lifetime, there have been four great world concerns: peace, freedom, development and environment. The general pattern is first, we create a world commission and they write a big report. This is subsequently followed by a great international meeting. Also, people like to think all their issues and concerns can be lumped together. If you go back, there has been a whole history of efforts where peace and freedom were connected; then peace, freedom and development; and finally development and environment -- which resulted in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The World Commission on Environment and Development that laid the groundwork for the Rio meeting was headed by Dr. Brundtland, who later became director-general of the World Health Organization, as well as having been the prime minister of Norway.

As a result of these efforts, sustainable development emerged as this extraordinary, great, overarching tent into which an enormous number of different groups of stakeholders can project their hopes and aspirations. In one sense, sustainable development has become this extraordinary political success. But that makes it difficult for science to deal with because it is all things to all people. You probably have already discovered that as you have been trying to think through what sustainable development means for your readership.

Q: Yes, not to mention it also is a subject littered with misinformation.

A: That's right. While the notion of sustainable development is this great political success, by the time the Rio Conference takes place in 1992, there is practically no science involved. Some scientists did gather for a meeting before the conference, but the main international meeting really didn't involve scientists to any degree. So that brings us to our committee, which by the way, was a very broad committee -- much larger than the usual National Research Council committee, and it even included three former CEOs from industry. It is also worth mentioning, our committee was not funded by the U.S. government, although about 95 percent of the work the National Research Council does in the United States is in response to inquiries from government. And they usually get paid by the government agency concerned, but rarely does the government ask important large questions.

Q: Or asks them too late.

A: Yes, or then the Academies answer them too late to influence policy. However, in our case, half of the money came from the National Academy of Sciences and half came from a wondrous guy in Texas -- George Mitchell -- who is an extraordinarily concerned guy about the fate of the world. Our study cost $1 million because our 25-member committee met over five years, as well as having summer studies with more than 100 participants and was reviewed by 150 scientists.

All of which is to say we launched this study on our own initiative rather than as a request from one or another government agency. This afforded us the opportunity to think through what to do. At the outset, it was apparent the first task was to try to make sustainable development manageable. So we decided to focus on something we called "the sustainability transition." We rooted this on one of the few things about the future we felt really confident about -- one of the great achievements of the social sciences: the demographic transition.

Q: Can you elaborate what this transition is?

A: It was obvious global population growth rates started going down in 1962. That was the year of peak population growth, and it has been downhill ever since. The absolute number of people added to the earth's population each year has been shrinking since 1987, something most environmentalists don't realize. The U.N. is also faced by this irony. They have to keep readjusting their long-term population projections downward. So that was one thing we could latch onto about the future about which we could be fairly certain.

We could say we've got 6 billion people now on the planet, and we are probably going to have a world population of about 8.9 or 9 billion people by 2050. So we took 2050 as a target date. Then for forecast from 2050 to 2100, maybe add another billion, although maybe not. We also thought 2050 was a good date because some of us previously worked on climate change where we had been looking at changes over the next century. At any rate, in terms of a transition, we said there will be about 9 billion people on earth by 2050. Then the population isn't going to go much above that. This means we could see light at the end of the tunnel in terms human needs. It was going to plateau. So we said, "Let's focus on human development and ask ourselves what would be needed, at a minimum, for 9 billion people."

Q: In other words, take the human factor as an essential part of the sustainability equation?

A: That's right. We decided these 9 billion would need to be fed, nurtured, housed, educated and employed. That became a mantra for us. That is an essential part of a sustainability transition. My granddaughter will be 70 in 2050. So I imagined she is going to write me a note to wherever I might be and tell me whether we have succeeded in feeding, housing, nurturing, educating and employing the 9 billion people who will be around at that time, and if we have at the same time, managed to preserve the basic life support systems of the planet. In other words, we shrink down all the rhetoric about what sustainable development is to something we thought as scientists we could deal with and translate into meaningful goals and targets.

Q: So you were looking at the issues from a wide range of perspectives?

A: Yes. One of our committee members, who had been the secretary of the Treasury [Department] in the Nixon administration, argued we can never have a sustainable world where you would have such extraordinary differences as exist today between rich and poor. Therefore, we need to put in a third criteria for a sustainability transition -- a significant reduction in hunger and poverty.

Q: In some ways, that has been my starting point in looking at sustainable development. It seems to me one effect of technology, the Internet and so on, is that many of these poor regions of the world are no longer culturally isolated. They are seeing more and more what rich nations have. If they don't have comparable standards of living, they are not going to sit quietly in poverty for the next century or two.

A: They may not need parallel standards of living, but they would at least need to meet their basic needs. While half the world is now arguing about privatizing water, there are 1.4 billion people without a decent water supply. Some on the committee said, "Well if we fed everybody, we will have reduced hunger and poverty." And this wonderful guy, who one might think would be the standard conservative, argued, "No if you don't have it specifically written out, you won't do anything about it."

I think he's right. We needed a real target. As another of our members pointed out -- while we as scientists didn't really have anything particular to contribute in defining goals about hunger and the other basic needs -- the world already had goals regarding hunger, as well as many of the other needs. So we did an analysis of what existing international agreements were in effect, what goals already existed. Basically the official U.N. goal is to cut hunger and poverty in half by 2015. We said there were two generations between now and 2050. We would be happy if you could cut hunger in half in the first generation by 2025, and then cut hunger again in the second generation by 2050. That would leave you with a small number like 200 million or so hungry people in a world of 9 billion, which is probably the best you could hope for. We thought this was a good target. You know, scientists love giving things a half-life. So Kates' law is to give everything bad a half-life and double the rate of everything good in each of the coming generations.

Then we found other goals for education. Tom Parris and I published a recent update in the April Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It turns out that on the human development goals, there are much clearer views for everything except employment. Interestingly the International Labor Organization is the weakest of the international agencies. Of course, as you might imagine, the strongest goals are for children. But environmental goals are much more diffuse. There are lots of nice words -- restore forests and so on -- but these are far less targeted. We were very keen that we would have targeted goals -- goals where you could measure progress. Are we moving closer or further away from a sustainability transition?

Q: Is it that assessing the environment means assessing a much more complex picture?

A: Yes and no. It is also that there is much less agreement about what a sustainable environment consists of.

Q: If children are hungry and aren't eating, that is easy to measure.

A: That's right. Or saying so many children are not in elementary school. The goal for education is for every child in the world to attend elementary school at least. It is easy to agree on that. But if you ask how many parts per million CO2 can we tolerate without throwing the world into a tizzy, you get different assessments. Or if you ask how many species can we lose and still think we are preserving the life support systems? But going back to our original study, we did a trial run on what we proposed. One of our colleagues on the committee had some special software suitable for asking "what if" questions. So we said, "Okay, what would it take in the world to cut hunger in half in each generation and also meet our rather stringent CO2 goals?" Based on the computer modeling, we decided it is doable. We convinced ourselves.

At the end of the study, we come out with specific targets. What should we do first? We are pretty specific about what needs to happen. But along the way, it became obvious how can science and technology contribute. One important thing to realize is science and technology can't contribute to everything. Scientists and technologists sometimes have problems with that, because they always want to feel important. They also want to get their next research grant. I'll give an example: I don't think the problem of the 1.5 billion [people] without a decent water supply is something that needs a lot more of science and technology.

Q: The science for that is already there.

A: Absolutely. The pumps have been there for 100 years. In fact, the most reliable pumps are the ones that were around 100 years ago, the hand pumps we had on farms.

Q: Often going back to earlier technology allows these to be repairable and sustainable as pieces of machinery by a local community in some outback somewhere.

A: Exactly. But you also understand if you were in the osmosis business, you might be thinking that if only you could make a better membrane, you could turn all the seawater in the world into fresh water. And you would have answered that differently, even though someone else would come along and say, "Yeah, but that sea water will never get into Mali." One of the things in the analysis is not to argue that science and technology can contribute to every issue. So we came up with some rules for something called "sustainability science and technology." That is where you would take into account both the environment and development. There are a whole set of divides that have to be integrated -- the natural science and the social science divide, for instance.

Q: In simplistic terms, you can't solve the environment problems if you completely ignore the economic and social situation in a region.

A: And vice versa. You need the natural and social sciences to work together. You need to integrate. Then there is the issue of a 50-year perspective. We are terrible at long-range perspectives. Even for the National Academy of Sciences, which has been around since 1862, that's difficult with all the short time frames you deal with all the time working with governments.

I helped chair the committee after publishing the report to look at how the academy should do it. We decided one of the ways to deal with this is start an endowment. It's like government: If you have a budget line, it forces everybody to at least address it every year. If you have an endowment that says we've got to spend money for sustainability science this year, this forces you at least to figure out what to do with that. So to start this endowment, it was George Mitchell again who stepped forward with $10 million.

Speaking more generally, there is a problem of how you keep focus when all of us are terribly shortsighted with whatever we are doing. You have to take a long-term perspective. You have to integrate the natural and social sciences. You have to define a "place," because the nature of the sustainable development problem differs widely depending on where you are. So we can talk about it in a generic way, but sustainable development in New York means something different than sustainable development in Ouagadougou. Then you say, "Well, how can scientists and technologists help?"

Q: This brings up something I wanted to get into. A lot of sustainable development boils down to local initiatives, which is where science and technology have a role.

A: Yes. When you look at the causal and driving forces, they are all up and down between the global and the local. There is a whole dynamic way of thinking that scientists and technologists who want to contribute have to adopt. One of the interesting questions is, who provides the science for Spokanem, [Wash.]? Who provides the science for this or that city or region? The scientific community has never really reached out to them. Scientists often have problems maintaining their relationships with local places regardless of whatever institution they are in.

Q: What has been the impact of Our Common Journey?

A: Well, as I said, it launched the beginnings of sustainability science. In Our Common Journey, we had all these nice words and got good feedback. It gets disseminated. We had a world meeting sponsored by World Academies of Science in Tokyo in which it was a major text. After that, the World Academies pledged to work on some of these issues. Then stuff slowed down. We realized despite all our nice words, "Hey gang, how do we actually do sustainability science?"

So we took a different tack and brought together 25 good scientists we knew were interested in the subject, and we locked ourselves up in a country manor in Sweden and tried to hammer out what we thought was sustainability science. We then took that issue, because we were beginning slowly to understand if you are talking about places where stuff appears differently, then we should see how sustainability science differs around the world.

So we also held seven regional based meetings -- one for North America in Ottawa, for example. Then we met in Mexico and tried to synthesize all we learned. We realized that parallel to the questions of what formed the core scientific questions of sustainability science were also questions that should be dealt with by people who live and work in the places where sustainable development is their long-term challenge. All of a sudden, we found ourselves addressing how we co-produce knowledge. How do we work with stakeholders? How do we help solve problems that are not defined by ourselves? Too often in science, our approach is, "Hey I've got this wonderful solution. Can I find a problem to apply it to?" Yet we are talking about problems defined by people who live in these different areas.

It is a lot about looking at real problems. Then as scientists and technologists, asking ourselves what do we know that might help solve them? Are we the people who can help, and if so, what should we do? On our Web site there is a section on core questions -- scientific concerns as well as a solutions page -- where we try to give examples of scientists and technologists providing solutions to real-time problems. There will also be material on how to do integrated studies.

If you are thinking about the next 50 years, much more important than Bob Kates and my colleagues is the next generation of young scientists and technologists, and the generation afterwards. All the problems of how you do interdisciplinary work and how you get tenure, and how do you learn to work with others? How do you feel comfortable doing that? So we are beginning our first effort in that direction, and we just put our first education page up. This summer we had four research fellows from developing countries come to our first trial of a summer program on sustainability science, which was held in Vienna. So we are moving along.

Q: To pick up a couple of key points the first thing that intrigued me was your highlighting and promoting the concept of transition. You are basically saying a transition is necessary, and it is something that is not just going to happen. It is something that we've got to make happen.

A: Yes. It is also clear, as you can see in our latest assessment, that on our current path, we will not achieve the transition.

Q: So it is definitely something we have to engineer, and also something where science and technology have an important place. That seems something governments must connect into. It doesn't seem that industry is going to provide the main impetus.

A: Well, they can be interestingly intertwined. A group of geographers just had a book published called, Global Change and Local Places: Estimating, Understanding and Reducing Greenhouse Gasses. It is a study of four sites in the United States. At one of the sites, northwestern Ohio, it turns out Toledo is now a member of International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives because it happens to have two of the companies that have made a decision to take climate change seriously -- British Petroleum and their partner Amoco. So the key guys in the corporation get pressure to do something, and they approach Toledo with the suggestion they join. So there is some interaction.

Q: So it is a partnership.

A: Yes. Then our colleagues at the University of Toledo, who have been working on this study, join that partnership, and in part, provide some of the scientific and technical support. And part of the technical and scientific support comes from company engineers.

Q: I was thinking that just like states and cities now have CIOs in the IT sphere, perhaps they need a CSDO -- chief sustainable development officer -- who can work with different departments and agencies to address these issues, reporting directly the governor or mayor. In other words, perhaps the IT model in local and state government might also serve as a model for developing sustainability partnerships?

A: Yes. And you are getting that in part. In Maine we just appointed an energy czar reporting directly to the governor. The Atlantic Provinces in Canada and the northeast states have formed their own "Kyoto agreement." We passed the first legislation in Maine that sets concrete targets and goals, with the government taking the lead by reducing its own consumption of energy. I think, in time, we will have sustainable development officers. Some places have them, although in some cases, they are the result of relabeling some existing role.

Q: That's why it occurred to me the CIO model might be an interesting one to look at. It might provide someone who can develop the interface between scientists, technologist, industry and government.

A: Well yes. Although, if you look at our states, one of the great advantages of our federal system is we can often learn a lot on how to do things and how not to do things by the states taking different kinds of initiatives. Then eventually some ideal solutions emerge and get widely adopted.

Q: They become best practices and get promoted as such.

A: Right. For example, we are about to work on our climate action plan for Maine. We are a rural area filled with good environmentalists who travel 100 miles a day to work, driving by themselves, and often driving an SUV. Fifty percent of our emissions come from transportation, when it is only generally a third elsewhere. We are about to put together a stakeholder committee. One of the challenges is not to have stakeholders who are the lobbyists or the spokesperson for different interests, but have the smartest person in the group because it is a hard problem.

Q: The other point I wanted to discuss a little more is the notion that sustainable development needs a better measure to track progress or lack thereof.

A: Yes. Many states and local jurisdictions have tried to provide indicator sets for sustainable development. More and more work has been put in on indicators, because people intuitively thought if you can figure out what the indicators are, then they can figure out what sustainable development is. So they put together a broad stakeholder group, and they always seem to end up with about 40 indicators. You do this at an international level, and you do it at a national level and you do this at a local level. It usually turns out the list of indicators are really hopes and aspirations of all the different groups you brought, rather than a much sharper sustainability transition in which half a dozen indicators would be enough to tell you whether you are moving.

Q: In your report that was the first thing you really addressed -- coming up with a definition of sustainable development that was inclusive of enough factors to make it workable.

A: Yes, but I'm also saying you'll find, on a parallel path, there is lots of activity on sustainable development in developed countries based on the issue of indicators. They are not very helpful in trying to prioritize. What they are most helpful in is getting people together to talk about what their hopes and aspirations are. However, to tackle the transition and get to where we have to, another approach is needed. That's what we continue to develop.
Blake Harris Editor
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